My head was probably half-submerged in a clear plastic bag on the corner of 115th Street and Broadway when I first made Al's acquaintance. He looked on with apparent curiosity as three freegans procured their weekly groceries, free of charge.
In our usual friendly manner, we offered him the food that we'd already acquired. He seemed amazed about the sheer amount of waste and interested in taking some food home. We handed him a plastic grocery bag and he helped himself to a few items: an apple or two, cucumber, perhaps a microwave meal.
He could not take much more, he said, "because the library doesn't allow food. I've been camping out there for the past couple weeks."
I wouldn't have guessed upon first glance that he was homeless. With his unkempt long white beard, otherwise clean cut, beady eyes set behind square spectacles, and walking cane he looked like any old cooky university professor. Indeed that's precisely the kind of man we had on our hands: a former cooky professor who had fallen on hard times.
"They let me hang out in the library for free, it's a great perk of working for the school..."
Yes, and he knows when and where to catch museums, shows, film screenings, art galleries - all kinds of entertainment around the city - for FREE. My kind of guy.
"…but they don't allow food. Either way, I won't be staying there long."
Al(bert) explained that he worked for Columbia some years ago, the reason they allow him in the library. Students are in the throes of finals, so the library doors are open at all hours. But not for long. He must soon find another place to stay and does not have much money for rent when that time comes.
He accompanied us to our next stop, a bakery some blocks away. This location is well known amongst freegans for its lavish gourmet pizza, though their occurrence is somewhat seldom. This week we were in luck! Plenty of cheese and pepperoni slices for all. I had no interest in taking it home so we partook then and there. I helped myself to a cheese slice and passed another along to Al. He was very thankful and in a bit of disbelief. He had learned how to get almost everything for free - even "lodging" for a few weeks now - but had never considered this method for finding food.
He asked whether we knew anyone with a room. I offered to spread word of his need, but I couldn't promise a successful effort. Either way, I was glad to have helped him learn how to subsist in NYC. With the amount of food wasted and the facility of acquiring it, there is absolutely no need for anyone in this city to go hungry. We hope to prevent hunger and food waste before our valuable resources hit the waste bag.
Someday, perhaps. Someday.
In the mean time we can help ourselves to the city's discards, keep some good food out of landfills while keeping our own bellies full, and seek out viable living situations for brothers and sisters in need, like my new friend Al.